How to Live a Good Life: Philosophy Versus Religion

A philosophy of life is a considered set of principles by which one finds meaning, purpose, and coherence in the world. A philosophy of life contains an epistemology (what can be known), a metaphysics (how the world works), an ethical framework (how to behave and treat others), and variously a political philosophy that describes how society should be structured. 

It is hard to live a morally worthwhile and meaningful life without some set of guiding principles and ideals, and this is perhaps why so many people feel lost in contemporary times. Religion doesn’t feel relevant anymore, yet philosophy is something most people are not exposed to unless they happen to stumble upon it by chance or by their own volition (philosophy is conspicuously absent in public education). 

That’s what makes How to Live a Good Life potentially invaluable in today’s climate. The reader gains exposure to 15 ways of life that can provide the meaning, purpose, and coherence necessary to live productive and fulfilling lives. Each way of life is described by a prominent academic that—in addition to their academic qualifications—also identifies and practices the philosophy/religion. This makes for a fascinating read; instead of a series of encyclopedia entries, you get very personal accounts (without sacrificing scholarly rigor) of how each philosophy/religion brings meaning to each author’s life, providing an insider’s view of each subject.

Unfortunately, the book has a significant flaw that I can’t overlook (I tried). You’ll notice that the subtitle is A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy. Since I think the way that we use words matters, it is worth thinking more deeply about what the term philosophy actually means. 

Philosophy has various definitions, but has a good one; it defines philosophy as “the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.” We can flesh out this definition by considering the history of the field. Philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom via rational investigation that takes nothing for granted and provides arguments for its positions and conclusions. The key elements in philosophical reasoning are doubt, questioning, and especially the provision of arguments.

Now, I understand that religion presents a viable way of life for many people, but it is simply not philosophy. The philosopher A.C. Grayling said it best in his History of Philosophy:  

“If the starting point for reflection is the acceptance of religious doctrine, then the reflection that follows is theology, or theodicy, or exegesis, or casuistry, or apologetics, or hermeneutics, but it is not philosophy.”

In the introduction of How to Live a Good Life, commenting on the various “philosophies” of life, the authors write, “To the degree that the metaphysics includes a significant reference to a transcendental reality, and particularly to a god or gods, that tradition falls more on the side of religion than philosophy, but that distinction is not crucial.” 

On the contrary, that distinction is very crucial. Are the authors really claiming that, if you believe that a personal god created the entire universe specifically for you and then revealed his plans in an ancient book, that this is not a relevant distinction between a field (philosophy) that is not supposed to take unargued positions for granted?

To clarify, if people want to be religious, that is their prerogative, but if you read the book, the section on religious traditions feels entirely out of place. Why? Because, unlike the chapters on philosophy (like Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Existentialism, etc.), the religious authors refuse to argue for their positions. Here are some examples.

On the chapter on Hinduism, Deepak Sarma writes, “When pressed on the issue of its origins or the location of karma, its ontological status, Hindus, even those professing the most systematic Hindu tradition, do not offer an explanation” Later, he writes, “Visnu is the actuator for the establishment of the universe, which is the location where karma can manifest….Beyond this Hindus neither ask, nor offer answers to, further metaphysical questions that arise from this belief …This, like the lack of origins of karma, seems acceptable to me.” (I can’t help but think of Hitchens’ razor when I read this. As the late Christopher Hitchens said, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”)

In the chapters on Judaism and Christianity, the authors describe why they think their respective religions are good for the world and how they provide meaningful narratives, but not why we should think they are true. Commenting on Christianity, Alister McGrath writes, “I shall make no attempt to defend or justify a Christian approach to meaning; my task here is simply to present and explore it.”

This sure does not seem to fit the bill of Socrates’ “examined life.” Taking for granted the ultimate origin and purpose of the entire universe is one big unargued assumption. And this isn’t humility, it’s the opposite; to think that your religion has conclusive answers to the most difficult problems known to man—and that you don’t even have to argue for its truth!—is actually hubris on the largest imaginable scale. This is why a general feeling of intellectual disingenuity pervades the chapters on religion. 

I’ll reiterate: people have the right to be religious and to form their own beliefs, and there are plenty of very good and decent religious individuals that contribute greatly to the community. But don’t call religion philosophy, because it is most certainly not, and this book creates the false impression that two distinct disciplines are the same when in fact they disagree in the deepest possible epistemological sense. 

So I have very mixed feelings about this book. The essays on philosophy are generally well thought out and interesting, and even the essays on religion help to show how the religious mind works and why people tend to follow religions. So overall, it’s a fascinating book, and even if you identify more strongly with one way of life, you should be able to find useful insights from the teachings of the others. 

You might, however, call into question the entire idea of choosing a personal philosophy in the sense of molding yourself to one particular doctrine. If the purpose of a life philosophy is living a good and meaningful life, then isn’t it more important to live by the principles that make the most sense to you—and deliver the most benefits—rather than trying to ensure that you are a “true” Stoic, Epicurean, or Christian? 

This, I believe, is what Socrates was trying to tell us. No one has all the answers, and universal rules always have exceptions. We are limited and fallible, and the best we can do is examine our actions—not according to conformance to dogma or doctrine—but in accordance with our rational faculties that all humans share. We can select a general orientation to life, but not at the expense of surrendering our critical faculties to the conformity to orthodoxy.